Study: Polarization at highest level in 25 years
June 5th, 2012
11:35 AM ET
6 years ago

Study: Polarization at highest level in 25 years

(CNN) – Bitter political fights, now considered commonplace in the U.S. Congress and on the campaign trail, may be an indication to most Americans that polarization is high among our elected officials.

But even among the country as a whole, Americans are more divided along political lines than they have been in 25 years. Political differences now divide Americans more than race, education level, income, gender and religion. And, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center, the political divide spiked during the last decade, during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

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The survey looked at differences between Republicans and Democrats over the past quarter century, comparing the partisan gaps on issues like labor unions and the environment to ideological gaps between people of different gender, religion, race and class level.

While the gender, religious, class and race differences remained relatively consistent in the survey, the gaps between Republicans and Democrats widened considerably to record levels.

"As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years," the Pew report stated. "Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides."

The biggest increase in political polarization came in "government scope and performance" – the gap in 1987 between Democrats and Republicans on that issue was 6 points; in 2012 the gap is 33 points. On immigration, which Pew began asking about in 2002, the gap increased from 4 points to 24 points. And on the environment, which Pew started measuring in 1992, the gap went from 5 points to 39 points.

Members of the two parties were most divided on a social safety net for the poor – a 41 point gap has opened between Republicans and Democrats on the issue, a jump from 23 points in 1987.

That spike is explained by a drop in the number of Republicans who agreed that "It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves." In 1987, 62% of Republicans held that view, compared to 40% who feel that way today.

Democrats have also shifted ideologically since Pew began taking the survey 25 years ago. In 1987, 86% of Democrats said they "have old-fashioned values about family and marriage." Today 60% hold that stance.

In their report, Pew explained that changing party demographics can partly explain the growing polarization – they note the Republican Party is dominated by conservatives, rather than moderates, and that the number of liberal Democrats is growing to match the number of moderate Democrats.

But independents are also divided, the study explained.

"While many Americans have given up their party identification over the past 25 years and now call themselves independents, the polarization extends also to independents, most of whom lean toward a political party," the report stated. "Even when the definition of the party bases is extended to include these leaning independents, the values gap has about doubled between 1987 and 2012."

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Filed under: Democrats • Republicans
soundoff (133 Responses)
  1. Malory Archer


    Obama's second term will be a disaster of high magnitude. He succeeded in polarizing the people in racism, morality, wealth and political ideology. It is not good for a country. We need a president who could bring people together.


    Well Babe, you're the one who chose to be "polarized". Frankly, I felt much more polarized when I was being told, MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY, and IF YER NOT WITH ME, YER AGIN' THE TROOPS.

    June 5, 2012 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  2. Nuihc

    @Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer, and Think again,,,,um guys, you still did not prove what I said was wrong. Sounds like you guys have invented a new dance,,,the "liberal spin." Everything tanked after the dems took over the purse strings in congress. And dems still can't pass a budget, in fact Reid says a budget is not needed!! Imagine how much further in the hole we would be without the Republican congress keeping a check on all the country damaging policies put forth bay obama and the senate.

    June 5, 2012 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  3. grimsby

    Funny how everyone gets so caught up in this supposed difference between Democrats and Republicans. They're two sides of the same coin.

    June 5, 2012 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  4. Nuihc

    @Tom Paine,,,,what name calling? I called no-one any names.

    June 5, 2012 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  5. Deb in MT

    The new book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" by Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein–both veteran Congressional observers/reporters from each side of the political divide–has been largely under-reported by the media, but it deserves to be widely read by anyone who still values this republic and the separation of powers.

    These guys don't tiptoe around the causes and results of this incredible polarization, and it isn't pretty. I highly recommend reading it.

    June 5, 2012 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  6. Sniffit

    "Of course the country is polarized thanks to the Great Democrat Welfare Society! You have the half that have been suckers who have suddenly woken up and realized they are working like dogs to support the other half of the country. And now the Do Nothings, Pay Nothings are complaining that the ones that are paying aren't paying enough and demanding more!!
    Never thought I would see you describing the Red States so accurately! Congratulations on the revelation they are parasites on all those hard-working liberals."

    You have to understand, Tom, that you have to read between the lines and understand right wing radical code:

    "the Great Democrat Welfare Society" = "Post-Civil Rights Era America"

    "Do Nothing, Pay Nothings" = "all you minority welfare queens trying to take over my white country with your immigration and birth rates"

    You know who are truly the do nothing pay nothings? Employers. 40 years without middle class salaries going up while they pocketed the record increases in profit generated by our blood, sweat and tears. Seems to me that's passing close to the truest do nothing, pay nothings of all...slave owners.

    June 5, 2012 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  7. scottf

    There are no winners here. The real losers in this are the American people. Nothing will ever get done of any value.

    June 5, 2012 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  8. Four and The Door

    Putting an unqualified political hack in the White House in 2009 did nothing to help the atmosphere in Washington. This has been the most partisan administration our country has ever suffered through. Thank goodness it's 2012.

    Romney 2012

    June 5, 2012 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  9. Honestuck

    The Division is along racial lines. Political divide is the code for "The President is black". Not to worry though, the racists are in the minority. The progressives are the majority, all they have to do is come out and vote, otherwise you have to live with Romney in the White House and the Republicans (the Party of the white folks) in Congress.

    June 5, 2012 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  10. Nuihc

    Sniffitt,,,thank you for proving my point for me.

    June 5, 2012 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  11. Obama 2012 - BEND Forward America, take another 4 long years of FAILURE

    I most certainly agree with former president Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. If Mitt Romney is elected it will be calamitous for US.
    And Obama and the Democrats have guaranteed it with Taxmageddon in January, 2013. Their years of economic gimmicks, tricks, smoke and mirrors will all come to an end at once and explode on Romney. That is why they will not address the problem NOW as the Republicans have been pushing for. Democrats, the party of economic IEDs that they blame on others.

    June 5, 2012 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  12. stranger in an increasingly strange land

    Republicans floor me. They are claiming that the Jobs producers are the really rich (mostly Republicans) Then they claim that, despite the assertion that the really rich are the ones creating jobs, it is Obama and the Democrats that are responsible for unemployment among Hispanics and other minorities.
    Let me see if I follow this correctly. Romney worked for a corporation that bought out companies in trouble at bargain prices. The corporation then outsourced American jobs to third world countries. That way they would not have to pay a living wage to Americans and they would make money hand over foot for the obscenely rich Republicans that run the corporation. Jobs were downsized for the remaining American workers, some factories were closed and the workers were trown into the unemployment lines.
    And now the Republicans are saying that Obama is to blame.
    Not sure I follow the logic here.

    June 5, 2012 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  13. Obama 2012 - BEND Forward America, take another 4 long years of FAILURE

    The Real Tom Paine - hard-working liberals

    Guinness Book of World Records has confirmed this is the first time that combination of words has been used in a sentence. Congrats!

    June 5, 2012 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  14. Taran

    Basing our economy on war and weapons is narrowminded and wrong on so many levels. We have no natural resources or anything that anyone else in the world would want. Being a country that produces nothing but weapons and war makes us nothing more than horrible monsters. All that $$$ that goes to weapons manufactures would be much better spent on the positive. Our military personnel are very good at pretty much everything. If we put them to work rebuilding our infrastructure, teaching our children and healing our sick & injured are just a few things would go a long way towards reemploying our military.
    Now you sound like Ron Paul. That is not a bad thing. For the first time since I have noticed your posts on here, I agree with you (except for the "horrible monsters" part). But, no matter how much I agree with you, that is not the reality of the world.

    June 5, 2012 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  15. sfeadmin

    I am so fed up with the radicals on the right that I will never vote for another republican under any circumstance! This current batch of Republicans make the Taliban look sensible!

    June 5, 2012 04:31 pm at 4:31 pm |
  16. someGuy

    enough with the 'conservitards' 'libtards' 'repukes' and all other derivatives of these. It just makes things worse.

    If you want to make a point to your boss, or your spouse, or your parents, do you end the point by insulting them? No, not if you want them to listen to you.

    It's more effective to be calm, controlled and articulate, then if whoever you're speaking to gets irate and starts insulting you, it completely discredits their point and you practically win by default.

    June 5, 2012 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  17. Duane - St. Pete FLA

    let’s all remember that the liberal had a super majority for two full years and could have passed ANYTHING within that time period they all want to do is yell obstruction but want us all to forget that time period.....they did nothing!!!! oh, for clunkers....yeah...that helped. oh and the Obama care that is about to be over

    June 5, 2012 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  18. jj

    Polarization at highest levels since the inception of the Tea surprise there.

    June 5, 2012 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  19. The REAL Truth...

    To repeat thinkahead's comments – and pls feel free to look it up.. It's FACT !!
    The country, the economy and [sic] the people have always fared better under Dem administrations than GOP.

    June 5, 2012 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  20. Gurgyl

    PS: I like to see when Obama takes WH, four,door, myview, three-in-one Karl Rowe face, nasty idiots. These guys are not rich either.

    June 5, 2012 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  21. Will

    Tea baggers should be rounded up and stuck in concentration camps.

    June 5, 2012 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  22. Happy_Days_are_here_again

    2013 – Who will win?

    Will it divide America even more?

    Does your man have what it takes?

    Will we all become progressives (code word for Socialist)?

    Does conservatism die after the Nov election or become stronger?

    Does Hillary become VP and a shoe in for 2016? Or does she has to run against Biden in 2016? May Edwards will make a come back?

    Does Mitt pick a women or a man or a cross gender as VP?

    Does Mexico become the 51st State?

    Do we do away with the dollar and create a Euro style currancy for the Americas – North, Central and South (excluding communist countries)?

    June 5, 2012 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  23. The Real Tom Paine


    @Tom Paine,,,,what name calling? I called no-one any names.
    Your patronising tone is more than enough to qualify. Your "analysis" has all the credibility of astrology. An economic crash does not occur due to policies enacted over 2-4 years, it occurs due to systemic weaknesses in the economy that take decades to build up.

    June 5, 2012 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  24. rob

    I am tired of the whining from the liberal media and their partners in the Dem party complainging about partisanship. Does no one remember how Ronald regan was treated by them? Does anyone recall what accusations George Bush endured by the Dems? For the liberal media/Dem propaganda machine bi-partisanship is when Republicans agree with them and shut up. Thats how they were treated by Pelosi, Reid and President Obama from 2009-2010. The Dems shut the repubs out of major legislation saying "We won". Legislation like the Health Care Bill needs to be bipartisan. You need to build consensus around your ideas to attract the opposition therefore the filnal bill to stand the test of time. That is not how tghe dems did things and they paid the price at the polls in 2010 and will probably suffer the same fate in 2012.

    June 5, 2012 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  25. scam

    They're all crooks regardless of party. They only campaign for self benefit,not public servitude. For once I'd like a chance to vote on someone who cares about our nation's best interests rather than lining their already fat bank accounts. LOL, not likely in my lifetime.

    June 5, 2012 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
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